LONDON — Imagine watching a rock concert from the very front of the stage, a hairs-width from the singer, in front of 10,000 screaming fans. It’s not just the best seat in the house, it’s totally impossible.
But that what MelodyVR is building — a virtual reality (VR) platform that lets you watch concerts from the “unobtainable seat in the house,” right on stage, up close and extremely personal.
In reality though, it doesn’t work like that. In the British company’s Camden, North London offices in August, I tried the tech out for myself. Faces were blurry, details indistinct, pixels noticeable. It felt like I was watching everything through a gauze screen.
None of this is MelodyVR’s fault. Instead, it’s a clear illustration of one of the key problems facing virtual reality businesses right now: VR headsets still just aren’t up to scratch.
The YouTube of music in virtual reality
MelodyVR is building what is essentially the YouTube for virtual reality music. Its library ranges from videos of gigs to intimate, original content recorded for exclusively for the platform — one demo has a female vocalist performing in the sun in Brighton, England. And then there’s interactive experiences, the VR equivalent of music videos, where the music itself can pulsate around you and react to your presence.
It went public in May 2016, listing on AIM, and has several hundred artists on the platform, including Kiss, Kaiser Chiefs, The Who, and Bloc Party. But it hasn’t actually launched its product to the public yet. Instead, it’s planning to hold off until the next wave of VR headsets releases.
It is intended to launch on all of the major VR platforms; I tried it on Oculus Rift and the Samsung Gear VR. Some of the demos I tried were fantastic — in particular an interactive music video that let me paint luminescent vines in the air with my hands, pulsing and unwinding in time to the music. Put simply, it was captivating. But the recordings of concerts were less impressive.
The founders are candid about the limitations of current hardware, but are optimistic about the next year or so. “The hardware experience provides a good experience, but it’s not an amazing experience in terms of resolution,” I was told.
“From where we are last year … it is night and day. The experience was ok. The experience this year is good, and we think the experience next year will be amazing. And that’s really all down to mobile phone displays. Whether it’s Samsung with an S8 or a Rift, they will all based on the same tech.”
They added: “I think we’ve probably got another six to 12 months before we lose that screen door effect, which is for us a frustration. It’s another reason why we haven’t shipped the product yet, which is when we want music fans to have their first experience, we want it to be amazing. We think it’s pretty good, but it’s maybe … 20, 30% away from being that crystal clear resolution you get with a 4K display or higher.”
‘Consumers just don’t care for it that much’
Matt Miesnieks, a partner at Super Ventures, an augmented reality-focused investment fund, agreed that hardware still presents problems for video companies. “The other type of company that has dropped off the radar in the 12 months is anyone doing 360-degree video. Capturing video, playing it back in Gear VR, for the same reason. Consumers just don’t care for it that much, so certainly to get that next level of sort of user engagement, there needs to be a new generation of technology,” he said.
“That involves, in terms of content capturing, more of a light field. That light field would let you lean forward and backward within the video. And then there’s input, how do you control the video … And then obviously just resolution and bandwidth on devices, ergonomics, all that stuff is getting better. [But] it’s certainly not getting market traction beyond early adopters.”
In theory, though, MelodyVR is an incredibly enticing proposition. It’s the concert experience like you’ve never had it before, with impossible angles available from the comfort of your sofa. The company is a perfect example of the promise — and frustrations — of virtual reality.
Additional reporting by Shona Ghosh.